Counties as “Communities”

Speaking of cool stuff elsewhere on our site, I was very interested in John Sides’ report on the continuing debate over the “Big Sort” hypothesis, and a new study arguing that physical proximity may be less important than we seem to realize in supporting political networks. One of the sub-arguments in that article is that the county-level data often used in discussing political “clustering” does not reflect the extraordinary diversity that exists at the sub-county level.

This is an important point that is often forgotten in discussions of “fast-growing counties” or “surburban/exurban counties” or “Republican counties,” etc., etc. For one thing, county size and population density varies massively among the states. I grew up in GA, which has 159 counties (second only to Texas). Experts vary on why there are so many. Legend has it early Georgians wanted to have a county seat (and thus a courthouse and market) within a day’s roundtrip commute of every farmer. I suspect it may have more to do with a constitutional system that made it much easier to divide than to consolidate counties–and by the subsquent fact that statewide elections were decided until the early 1960s by a “county-unit system” that gave rural voters disproportionate power. But in any event, counties are geographically very small–ranging from 103 to 903 square miles–in that state. There are 28 counties in the Atlanta Metropolitan Statistical Area.

Where I live now, in California, there are only 58 counties. One of them, San Bernardino, stretches over 20,000 square miles. Another, Los Angeles, has more than 9 million residents. The intra-county diversity is bewildering. In my own county, Monterey (not one of the larger counties by geography or population), the county seat, Salinas, could not be much different in virtually every demographic respect than the coastal communities of Carmel and Pebble Beach. Democrats on the coast and in the farm belt tend to be from the two extremes of the income ladder, and probably never have any interaction other than on the highways. Wealthy Pebble Beach Republicans and middle-class Republicans (both white and Latino) from across the “lettuce belt” in the interior could be living on different planets. It all adds up to a Democratic-leaning but occasionally competitive county–which isn’t terribly descriptive of the underyling realities.

There are problems, of course, with utilization for analytical purposes of any and all geographical units. But next time you hear someone toss around the term “county” as though it is synonymous with “community,” think twice.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.